Cheek to Cheek

To justify his vision of Edward II as a contemporary gay fable, Jarman has said that he hates costume dramas because "they just look appalling." But the Nineties costumes for Edward and Gaveston (blue and green pajamas), Mortimer (khaki British-commando gear) and Isabella (Leona Helmsley haute couture) leads one to wonder which could be worse. Creditably, Jarman tampers only so much with Marlowe (Gaveston does blurt out an extraneous "Fuck 'em" when mentioning the barons), and his actors - all of them trained classical performers - successfully render their sixteenth-century blank verse. But boy, is this production claustrophobic! The entire film has been shot inside dimly lit corridors, hallways, and cubbyholes - a setting more suitable for Adolf Hitler's last days than Edward II's. The dark, deliberate theatricality of this screen treatment has all the expansiveness of a suppository.

The acting is secure though hardly distinguished. Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan, who play Edward and Gaveston, are delicate and believable - bland, even. The more dramatic roles, Mortimer and Isabella, are played for all they're worth by veteran Nigel Terry and the glacial, stylish Tilda Swinton (who won the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in this film). But they're encouraged by Jarman to overdo it: Isabella kills Edward's brother by descending on him in vampirical fashion and, in front of Mortimer and the crown prince, biting his neck, sucking his blood, thus killing him.

Jarman's taste takes a nose dive more than once, especially where music is concerned. Toward the end of the film, foreshadowing the fall of Mortimer and Isabella, young Edward sits above a cage bearing his mother and her lover, and Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker plays in the background. And in one of the most contrived scenes in recent cinema, Gaveston and Edward share a moment and slow dance romantically before Gaveston flees the realm. And the music is none other than Cole Porter's ballad, "Every Time We Say Goodbye." But there's more yet! In a matchlessly vulgar notion, a clear nod to music-video's intrusion on all visual arts, Annie Lennox, formerly of the Eurythmics, makes an appearance to sing - or rather, to lip-synch - Cole Porter as the two nobles pet heavily and shuffle round the dance floor. Intended, no doubt, as a heart-melting moment, the scene has all the aesthetic refinement of a lubricated prosthetic penis.

And speaking of body parts, Jarman makes sure we get a full dose of wet, male-to-male copulation in Edward II. In an early sequence, Gaveston ponders his return to Edward while a pair of musclemen lying in the same bed next to him sniff, smooch, and devour one another's sweaty orifices like a pair of rottweilers. Neither history nor Marlowe - nor, for that matter, the political interests of the contemporary gay community - is served by this unnecessary erotic display. It tends to lead one to conclude that, in the gay world, the penchant for gratuitous sex - in movies as in life - is as prevalent as it is in the hetero. (Maybe more.) With the flap over Basic Instinct still fresh in mind, and the allegations of "straight Hollywood" pigeonholing of gays still ringing in our ears, it is sobering to witness this film - the product of a gay filmmaker working outside the American mainstream - and the shameless manner in which sex is employed as an easy means of provocation and gratification. Call it T&A or C&B: the difference lies only in the appendages. And it shows Derek Jarman to be no visionary. He is literal-minded in the extreme when it comes to liberating any audience of its supposed prejudices.

But in the end, these assignations are tame when compared to the self-debasing freak shows one hears about in the netherworld of South Beach clubs. Given the regular audience, I predict this Edward II will be a summer hit at the otherwise excellent Alliance Film/Video Project, where Jarman's films have been well received in the past. Alas, only that multitude of club junkies flying high on Ecstasy, weed, and Jaegermeisters, who on regular weekend outings cheer the likes of Lady Henesy Brown (the black female performer who allegedly places a snake inside her distended vagina and presses her mutated breast to lactate over the screaming crowd) could find something diverting, instructional, and inspirational pushing forth from Jarman's tale. I wager very few others would.

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